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Wednesday, Dec 17 1997
Beyond Rage
The American Chestnut. Written and performed by Karen Finley. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Dec. 4-14. Call 621-7797.

"It's important for the child to adore something the parent hates," Karen Finley said, explaining her purchase of a Barney stroller. From the New York performance artist who jammed candied yams up her butt as one of the notorious "NEA Four" to the single parent living in the country with her mother, Finley highlighted the ironies of her identity shift to good comic effect. Unfortunately, the maturing Finley hasn't quite discovered the performance form to match her new life.

The American Chestnut, her latest piece of multimedia performance art, combined slide projections, live video, film, spoken word, and a dollhouse as she layered stories about blighted plants, monologues about motherhood, and trancelike laments involving violence, suffering, and oppression. But there were so many styles vying for focus that Finley's bold, vitriolic voice often receded like the taste of the fruit in an overspiced pie.

In part, the performance suffered from mistakes that no performer as experienced as Finley should make. In the subtler stories about the small-town lives of two women, she read so fast as to be unintelligible. That she did it sitting upstage, dwarfed by 20-foot projections and with her back to her audience, was simply exasperating.

Amid this chaotic melange lurked visionary morsels. In a fantasy about visiting an art museum that had been turned into a church and a mall, the clerk intoned: "This is a place of worship, a place of making fun of people, a place of trying on shoes." In another scene, Finley threw shadows of her legs onto a screen where her face was projected, riffing about the creation of a male lingerie store, "Victor's Secrets." "I want something that calls attention to a man's scrotum," she seethed. Channeling a society-whipped Hillary Clinton, she broke down weeping her litany of regrets: "I'm sorry, America: I don't care about my hair. I'm sorry, America, that I'm smarter than Bill."

Passionate, self-righteous, and unpredictable, Finley's work is difficult to talk about precisely because it isn't trying to be theater. There's no fourth wall, no pretense of acting technique, and no character coherence. She habitually confronts those furtive few who dare to walk out on her show. On the night I went, it was an older couple. "I guess you had enough," Finley threw up her hands. "Only 10 minutes and already you're bored." Later in the show, the computer went down; Finley continued to call for cues until a techie explained the problem. And then Finley transformed a technical disaster into magic. "Wow," she trilled, suddenly jubilant. "We're being haunted right now. A couple of nights ago I was watching Boogie Nights and there was a spirit right next to me. It was a short spirit. This piece is about my friend Dino who died of AIDS, and every night the spirits are getting more ... active."

The spectacle of a woman so involved in the mystery of her subject matter -- not its appearance -- is both the bane and boon of Finley's work. That night her disarming response burned through the haze of her muddled performance and suddenly she became clear, generous, and painfully vivid. And in that moment, I remembered: Performance art is not bratty no-technique theater, but a country all its own, where the spirit of the imagination roams -- for better and for worse -- without rehearsal.

-- Carol Lloyd

Family Ties
An African-American Antigone. Directed by Keith Grier. Starring Haninah Abdullah, Sharon Jamerson, and Robert Fisher. At A Black Box Theater, 50A Bannam Place (between Union and Green), through Dec. 21. Call 775-4291.

What makes the surviving ancient plays great has nothing to do with their material; the Greeks probably saw thousands of terrible shows tediously narrated by choruses that dealt with Olympian gods and toga-wearing heroes. Oedipus Rex and friends survive because they rest on simple human principles. But the ideas are sometimes so simple that audiences in future generations can easily miss them, if they're distracted by the costumes. So updating ancient plays takes a rare sense of what's costume and what isn't; it requires the careful eye of a tailor, to make sure the new clothes fit.

An African-American Antigone is ill-fitting and uneven, and not even because the old principles have been misunderstood. It's the new material that's been cut wrong. The old Antigone is about Oedipus' daughter, who defies Creon by building a funeral pyre for the body of her disgraced and blinded father. It's about a strong woman defying the dictates of an unjust city-state. An African-American Antigone is about a similar woman, but this time she's the daughter of Malcolm X, forbidden in a Christian country from giving her assassinated father a Muslim burial. This never happened, first of all. No one related to Martin Luther King Jr. ever tried to keep Malcolm's family from burying the Muslim leader. But here Creon is King's son-in-law, a smooth Christian minister with a proud head, and the drama that revolves around his personal objection to Malcolm's funeral feels tendentious, false.

The idea is that Malcolm's memory has been abused in America, because Christian ideals like King's are easier to swallow than Malcolm's Islam. This is true enough, and deserves a serious debate. But recutting recent history to make it look like ancient myth is not a serious debate: It sheds no light on Malcolm and fails to update Sophocles. And since it's not believable, it isn't gripping. There may be glimmers of truth in the speeches about hubris that Creon recites -- plenty of Christian leaders, in spite of their dogma, have been guilty of pride -- but the glimmers can't save the concept, any more than director Keith Grier's understated and honest stand-in performance as Haemon on the night I attended could quite rescue the show. It's a shame, because recent African-American history has its share of drama to rival the Greeks'; An African-American Antigone just doesn't capture it.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Stethoscoped Heart
Broken Open. Choreography by Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers. Original score by Marc Ream. At Brady Street Dance Center, 60 Brady (at Market), Dec. 5-7. Call 558-9355.

The dance-poem "Chambers 2 and 3," which Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers presented this month at Brady Street Dance Center, envisions a love as enveloping as snow. Bluethenthal has created a densely layered work by situating each element -- word, score, and choreography -- in a different relation to love's enwrap-tures. The actors' and dancers' words confront head-on the heart's physical nature and the metaphors it evokes; underneath "noons of dryness," as Auden called the daily reality of a loveless life, the music hollows out a warm, moist cavity; and the dancing occupies this muscled interior, depicting its force and effect.

Marc Ream's luminous and propulsive score sets the stage for "Chambers." Its bass line, a fast electronic tick opening into a warped wallow, conveys the accelerated thump and wet slosh of a stethoscoped heart. Working from the inside, the score widens into melodies that evoke open space and voicelike harmonies before contracting back to its initial tick and thump.

The score sets the dancers (Margrete Helgeby, Debby Kajiyama, Nancy Ng, and a captivating Laura Elaine Ellis) in pregnant, vibrant space: When they cluster and spin in clean patterns, they resemble blood cells in a heart; when they move off from the group in solo forays into space (in particular, Ellis' opening scat, her breath another percussive element in the score), each dancer stands immersed in love, the way you'd stand at the bottom of the sea. The dancers don't depict persons in love, they make metaphors for a state of being in love. Being in love is the reverberation of a sword just pulled from heavy wood, suggests one duet. Another, where one dancer traces a straight line down the other's expectant sternum, marks out an intimate surgery. Bluethenthal manages to touch us directly by sidestepping the stock moves of dancey-love, the undulations and contractions that have come to mean "I am overcome with emotion."

Carefully woven into the dance so as not to bombard us with stimuli, the dramatic dimension of "Chambers" consists of three archetypal characters -- a heart surgeon (Laurie Dingler), a lovelorn gal (Bluethenthal), and a love shaman (Amara Tabor-Smith). The women expound what professional training, personal experience, and metaphysical expertise have taught them about the heart. Their language works best when, like the dancing, it uses indirection -- the expansive elusiveness of metaphor and double-entendre. One character observes, "When the heart stops, there are four minutes before brain activity, deprived of oxygen, diminishes its functioning," and another counters, "My brain never fully regained its functioning after that." This obvious but charming leap between speakers enters the provenance of love language, with its sudden skips between the physical and the emotional.

Of the three, the matter-of-fact heart surgeon speaks most evocatively. "Chest pain has its own particular geography," she tells us. "It is territorial, rising in the center of the body." Grounded by necessity in the physical, her language avoids the barren excesses of conventional love poesy or its New Age equivalent. The shaman isn't so lucky, intoning lines like "The pathways of the universe, the world, and love all meet in the heart." In the work's weakest moments, the characters blur together, each stepping up to mouth sham-guru sentiments. When the characters' individual voices mishmash, the double meanings in their words don't spark. Their preachiness pulls us outside the warm myriad ways this dance has worked with love, promoting, instead, a single preferred Vision. But the dance's deeply believable layers of experience and impression offer greater insight; it doesn't need a shaman.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Sand Box
Dear Master. By Dorothy Bryant. Directed by Richard Rossi. Starring Barbara Oliver and Owen Murphy. Presented by the Aurora Theater Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, Nov. 28-Dec. 14. Call (510) 843-4822.

Gustave Flaubert is immortalized as a sculpture in Rouen, a city he hated. He thought the French were silly, fussing, dangerously stupid people, and it isn't clear that he would have been happier in any other part of the world. Some of his problem was that his readers didn't receive his books very well; but one who did was George Sand, a woman 20 years older and a writer who influenced him as a young man. When she wrote him a letter praising a novel panned by the critics, they started a lively relationship in letters that lasted until Sand died, in 1876.

Dear Master is about that relationship, and you might think a play based on a long series of letters by fusty novelists from another century would be mortally bland -- all pompous phrasing and no action -- and it's true that a few people were heard snoring at the Berkeley City Club during Dear Master's opening week. But the play isn't boring, partly because Sand and Flaubert weren't fusty. Sand was a spirited and brilliant woman, full of the optimism Flaubert lacked; and their conversation in Dear Master is accessible even if you're not especially interested in writers or the history of Europe. It's carried along by the story of France itself, which rose up against the vestiges of monarchy in 1848 and went to war with Prussia in 1870, and it becomes a self-standing duet between the two writers' outlooks, cheerfully idealistic vs. misanthropic and sour.

Since Sand was a woman with a male pen name, and since "Dear Master" is how Flaubert addressed her in his letters, the play could have turned on feminism and gender roles; but it doesn't, and focusing on their temperaments feels both deeper and more dramatic. Sand is an object lesson in female independence anyway; she doesn't need explanation. Barbara Oliver plays her gracefully, managing by turns to seem sweet, impertinent, and bullheaded; novelist Dorothy Bryant actually wrote the role for her in 1991. And Owen Murphy plays Flaubert as a large and blustering man. At first he seems too overbearing, maybe because I've always pictured Flaubert as more quiet than loud, but when the play settles into its groove you forget about the acting altogether. The unlikeliness of finding such a word-bound play absorbing reminds me of something I think a New Yorker critic recently wrote: Good dialogue is action. "Compared to most of what goes on between men and women," Flaubert says at one point, "I think prostitution is an honest transaction." And says Sand, near the end of her life, even after the Franco-Prussian War shows her "a world of hypocrites and criminals": "Hope, my friend, is not a delusion. It is a necessity."

-- Michael Scott Moore


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